Davis became particularly close to one elderly woman. They would sit together, and the woman would show off her pride and joy: hundreds and hundreds of pictures, her life story in photographs. One day Jane went to visit and all the pictures were gone. The staff told her that water had spilled on them and they had all been thrown away.
Jane became hysterical. "'Throw them all away? She's going to die!' That's what I said, 'She's gonna die, she's gonna die,'" Davis says, as her face tightens with the memory. Those pictures were her life, she says. "I remember standing in the hall and crying and screaming, and I felt like Alice in Wonderland - it was like the rantings of an insignificant little girl.
"A week later, the woman died." It happened almost 40 years ago and half a country away, but Davis still feels it. That's the thing about Jane Davis: she feels. She feels very strongly about people, and for people. And her role on this planet, she believes, is to help others to feel and see within themselves. So, she works as a psychological counselor, a sex therapist, and the architect of HOPE-HOWSE, an Atlanta-based non-denominational self-help ministry (she describes it as "a spiritual action"). Her passions have placed her in contact with groups as diverse as Native American tribes, Amnesty International, and death row inmates, a journey that has taken her across the country and around the world.
And in her spare time she explores Judaism. She consults with a Chabad rebbe, she logs onto the Internet, she talks to friends. And she brings her Jewish experience to others, particularly the shut-ins and the forgotten, the Jews in jail. They are the twin pillars of her life, her activism and her Judaism - her spiritualism - and while one informs the other, the relationship between the two was not always apparent. Even to Davis.
"The fact that much of what HOPE-HOWSE teaches is embodied in Torah teachings was, for me, a bonus," she says. "HOPE-HOWSE is not a Jewish philosophy although it incorporates many Judaic teachings. HOPE-HOWSE is a natural extension of my soul and core beliefs of 'love thy neighbor as thyself' in action, not just words."
God of the Mountains
Davis grew up Jewish in what she calls a mixed family - an Orthodox mother and a Reform father. It was a kosher home, with community involvement and the familiar blue Jewish National Fund tzedakah box on the kitchen table; the family lit Shabbat candles, and Davis learned the Shema and the other core Jewish prayers. But her connection to God, she says, didn't specifically come through anything related to Judaism. "I found God in the mountains," she says. "[As a child] I would go up in the hills and the mountains, and there was a meadow on top of the mountain I would go to all the time. And I'd go skiing, and I'd look at the sparkled snow, and wonder about the sparkles in the snow. And clouds - I'd ask my father, who was making the clouds in the beautiful blue sky? So God to me was the energy, or the spirit, that made life happen. I didn't get my spirit from Judaism. Judaism was, in my younger years, a whole different thing" - Sunday school, High Holy Days, and the like.
Davis attended Washington University in St. Louis, where she majored in cultural anthropology. "I always had an incredible curiosity about people - what made people tick - and also had incredible openness and kind of nonjudgment. I didn't want to judge you but [to] know everything about you, from the point of view of 'What's your life like?' Just an insatiable curiosity."
But she didn't foresee blazing any trails. "My goal was to get married, have five kids, and become president of Hadassah," she laughs. "I saw my role as being a partner to a man and a family, and creating this loving mini-community called family."
But that wasn't in the cards. Davis became a social worker (a CSW, she earned a master's in social work at Washington University). She worked in St. Louis and New York, a girl in her 20s, dealing with the tough and the brutalized and the lost - gang kids, mostly. While working on the "Scared Straight" program in New Jersey's Rahway State Prison, she met with lifers, mostly convicted murderers, who had created a program to help themselves and kids in trouble.
There, she found a calling. "What was most disturbing to me was that I was totally comfortable with a man society told me to hate and fear," she recalls. "I was thinking I'm not supposed to be this way - I'm speaking with a man who is sharing incredible stories of his life. How he murdered people. But, here was another piece - the part of him doing good work from inside. And there were others and others. It was a huge life lesson in humanity."
She loved the gang kids. She was reaching out to them, putting out her hand to theirs. One teen refused to see her for months. Davis kept dropping by, dropping by, and one day, the teen spoke. "It's all part of love," she says. "You have to keep showing up, especially for the kids." But the job was hard. "My friends were in advertising and media, and I was doing prisons and foster homes," she says. There came a point when she couldn't do it anymore. "I had an experience with a boy abused in a foster home." Suddenly her voice is soft; her eyes teary. "I kept telling him everything was going to be OK, but I was thinking it was not OK. So I decided I was going to join my friends in business and make a lot of money."
She was in her late 20s. Who could have blamed her? She had done good work. Why not be comfortable?
Davis went into marketing, first in New York, then in Atlanta, where she arrived 10 years ago. She worked for the Turner empire, bought her house, bought her car. She went into business for herself and founded the Davis Marketing Group, which she still runs.
Atlanta CPA Jerry Rosenberg, Davis' accountant and friend, remembers her at this time as a hard-edged, driven woman. "She was on the cusp of the corporate world," he says. "My first year [with her] she was very demanding and abrupt. I'd stereotype her as a 'corporate New Yorker,' and quite frankly, I wasn't going to shed tears if she didn't come back the next year. But the next year she did come back, and that's when our friendship started. That rough-and-tumble corporate image was not what she was trying to be."
Inside, Davis says, her work - the work of hope and forgiveness - never left her. In 1991 she was laid off from Turner. Not long after, she was reading the newspaper when she saw boxer Mike Tyson had been convicted of rape and assault. What struck her was the picture, though: a half-page photo of a man-boy with dulled, weary eyes under a glaring headline: MIKE TYSON GUILTY OF RAPE. Upset at the photo, she wrote an impassioned letter to The New York Times. "Something just poured out from my heart to my fingers," she says. Ten minutes after she faxed the note, a Times editor called, she recalls, and said the newspaper wanted to run it as an op-ed piece. It appeared on Feb. 16, 1992.
"I know the little boy inside," she says by way of explanation. "That's who I speak to when I talk to people. If we remember that, then we can create love and an atmosphere where we all can heal. That's 'love thy neighbor as thyself,' a major teaching of Judaism. First you have to know yourself, and then you have to love yourself."
After the Times piece ran, Davis decided she wanted to continue writing. The Davis Marketing Group paid the bills; the rest of her time was devoted to counseling and social work. "It's like God said I could have this, so I could do my real work," she says. She called an old client with whom she hadn't spoken in five years. He had just purchased a magazine called Prison Life. She became a contributing writer, writing many stories, including one on Jews in jail. "I found Jews were buried alive," she says of her visits to several prisons, including the state women's prison and federal penitentiary in Atlanta. "There was one woman who had been there for 10 years, and had never had a visit from a rabbi. I felt like I had stumbled upon this cave and found Jews there. So it was like my Jewish soul came forward - I couldn't just leave them."
In late 1992, having become a certified prison volunteer, she was asked to be a media witness at the execution of a convicted murderer named Chris Berger. Her life's work had come to a sudden juncture. "I knew if I was being asked to witness this," she recalls, "there was a bigger reason. I was being led."
Three weeks before Berger's execution, Davis sat in the state's electric chair, located in the state prison in Jackson. The one physical remnant of that day is a photograph. There she is, a pleasant woman with longish brown hair, wearing a black sweater, yellow turtleneck and corduroy pants, tightly gripping the chair arms and numbly staring straight ahead.
"I wanted to somehow get a sense of it," she says now. "When I look at that picture, I see it on my face. I was silenced. It had a definite power ... just awe, I don't even know the word." Her eyes are soft, but her voice is edgy. "It was unspeakable. It was unthinkable."
The execution, like all executions, took place at night. Davis and the other media witnesses were loaded in a van and brought to the back of the prison. Her heart was racing. The van pulled up to a gray concrete building. The passengers filed in, sitting in three rows of plain wooden pews. Davis was struck by the sickness bags placed at each seat in front of each person. "Oh my God," she says. "What a concept."
The room was small and cramped, and a large pane of glass separated it from between the witnesses, sitting on their benches, and the electric chair. Next to the chair was a doorway through which the prisoner was brought from a holding cell. Berger was led through the doorway to the chair. His face was ashen.
"The thought that went through my head," says Davis, "was that he was already dead."
His eyes met hers. And she mouthed, over and over, "I love you Chris, go in peace." "I wanted him to hear his name," she says. "I wanted him to remember he was someone. And I kept saying his name, and 'go in peace.'"
If the eyes are really the windows to the soul, Davis remembers Berger's inner being revealing sheer terror. She can still feel it. She wanted to jump up and scream. Berger was led to the chair, strapped in, and asked for any last words, Davis says. He looked out and said, I'm sorry to anyone I've ever hurt, please forgive me, and shrugged. A flap was placed over his face. A guard turned on the voltage and Berger's fists turned purple. He went into convulsions, and he did a dance of torture, and after two or three minutes, a doctor came in, paused to let the body cool down, and declared Chris Berger dead.
"We were there to witness," says Davis. "And witness we did."
"It went against every loving piece of me. At that moment, what I was witnessing had nothing to do with what that man did or didn't do. I was witnessing the State of Georgia frying a human being."
After the execution, Davis thought it would be easy to tell people what she had witnessed, and they would be appalled. She thought Jews in particular - with a long history of standing against oppression - would be upset.
She was wrong.
"And the more I was wrong, the more I banged on doors. I wanted to find a rabbi, ears, hearts, please," she says. One thing that threw her, she said, was when she spoke with people and heard them refer to the Hebrew Bible's admonition, "an eye for an eye." "I realized how defenseless and stupid I was about what 'Judaism' taught and I refused to accept that our Torah was responsible for such a horrible action. Ifelt an obligation to learn more about the basic teachings of Judaism, not just saying the words, 'I am Jewish.'"
It also sparked her prison activism. "I was kind of catapulted into the world, to seek human answers, more than I already had. And where are you going to get the answers? So I started going to the [death] rows."
She also started formulating the ideas of HOPE-HOWSE, an abbreviation for Help Other People Evolve through Honest Open Willing Self Evaluation. Many of the inmates she saw had had terrible pasts: abused childhoods, drug addictions, no parents, no love. So did many of the people she counseled.
(She likes to joke that she works with "rapists, pedophiles, murderers, and CEOs.") Her job, she believed, was simply to listen, to help people on their "painful journey." "It's about forgiveness, but also about compassion, where it is most difficult to have it," she says. It is not her place to forgive anybody's actions - "that's not my business," she says - but to find out how a person got to that point. "Forgiveness," she says,
"is a gift we give to ourselves. When a person holds on to rage and resentments it contributes to stress, illness, hate, and harmful behavior."
Max Soffar, a death row inmate in Texas, knows what Davis means. Soffar, who claims to be the first Jew to receive the death penalty since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, has been on death row for 19 years. Davis met him by chance, if chance can apply to Jane Davis. "On May 4th I got in my car heading west," she said in a speech to a conference in Washington last year. "I originally thought I was going to New Mexico to work on my [autobiography]. 'Why waste time?' the little voice inside me, my gut, my instinct that I have come to obey said to me.... 'Do your work.'
Some had read [an] article I wrote and [said], 'There's a Jewish inmate on death row in Texas. Can you see him?'" "Our Jewish blood brought us together," Soffar writes in a letter to the Jewish Times when asked about Davis. "Or we would not have met. I would have refused to visit her if she was not Jewish." Soffar had been rejected by his rabbi in Houston and had been ministered to by a state-employed rabbi whom he tired of. He and Davis talked for two hours. They recited the Shema and talked of Jewish things, Soffar writes, "such as my burial service."
"I am sad knowing if they kill me it is going to harm her heart. ... She has seen into hell - she see's [sic] human suffering and pain and in some cases she see's [sic] our fear. ... As [insanity] approaches me to hold my hand, Miss Davis is at my cage ... holding my other hand. Keepin[g] my mind safe in peace. She is a dear ... blessed human!"
Davis laughs when she's asked about Judaism. Though she's immersed herself deeply in her religion's teachings, she still wonders just how Jewish she is. She jokes about calling rabbis and insisting that she's not Jewish - she doesn't keep kosher, she's not familiar with laws and Talmud and tradition - and then having them laugh back. You're Jewish, they tell her. How could she not be, with so many questions? Still, she searched for guidance. Until recent years, she says, "I never found 'spirit' in Judaism as I experienced it in so many other places. I was greatly surprised and excited when I actually found rabbis who, through their incredible openness to listen - to be available, to not judge - helped me connect the word 'spirit' to the many rituals offered through Judaic teachings that so often are discarded."
Her primary rabbi is a New York Lubavitcher, Rabbi Yosef Y. Kazen, co-founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch website (www.chabad.org).
When asked via e-mail what he thinks of Davis' activism, Rabbi Kazen ispositive. "What she is involved with is helping others in her special way,"he responds. "I cannot say I approve of everything she believes in, but thefact that she is making people aware of certain issues -- hard-core issues -- makes a difference, and in my opinion, a positive one."
It may be accidental - or maybe not - that HOPE-HOWSE incorporates so many of those Judaic teachings. Davis says she "learns something from the Torah each day," but doesn't limit herself to the great works of Judaism. "I read some other spiritual teaching from Christianity, Buddhism, Sufi, Tantric... to keep the connection of our similarities present in my mind."
She trusts in the spirit, in God, maintaining that closeness that has always been there. Every day she wakes up at 3 a.m. and goes to her backyard, where she meditates and builds a fire when it's cold. She clears her mind of all thought, becomes empty, and "lets the day or God fill me up. I pray for the strength and wisdom to follow where I'm led. Sometimes I feel like a voyeur in my own body! It's like God is leading me places and I've got to have the strength to keep up. And I mean emotional strength as well as physical."
Through it all comes the connection - to God, to others. Six-year-old Jane felt it for the old woman in the rest home next door; 45-year-old Jane still does. She means it when she says, "I believe in the goodness of all of us. I've sat with the worst of the worst, the best of the best, and I'm more comfortable with the worst. I'm practicing a principle: it's me and it's not me. It all goes back to when I'd show up for old people.
"Because," she says, "something magical happens with showing up."
A Place Called HOPE-HOWSE
HOPE-HOWSE's message is encompassed in its logo: an eye, heart, and hand between a stylized roof and floor. The eye stands for self-examination, looking honestly into one's soul. The heart refers to "the energy of being heard," of listening, finding trust, and loving oneself. And the hand is about action, helping others on their own journeys. At present, HOPE-HOWSE, as an organization, is largely still a structure in Davis's mind. However, as she says, "We become HOPE-HOWSEs by being cleansed of negativity and judgment. It's an ongoing process." She taps into a large network of friends - and complete strangers - to further the cause; they have given money, advice, computer services, sponsorships, and whatever they feel like contributing. Abraham J. Bonowitz, director of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and a friend of Davis's, admits he was skeptical when he first met Davis during an Amnesty International function in Atlanta. "At first I thought she might be a little bit crazy," he says. "But after watching her and going through a lot of my own personal growth, I think she is among the most sane people I know. Jane's work is very important. I'm sorry to say that it is in many ways groundbreaking. We as a society needed her a long time ago."
HOPE-HOWSE was recently incorporated as a non-profit, but Davis prefers to keep things at a grass-roots, low-key level. "I would sell my house to keep doing what I'm doing," she says. "No dollar ever paid me the dividends with which this work has rewarded me."
She envisions a tangible HOPE-HOWSE as a place with a lot of land and a lot of animals, "a safe place to be yourself." How will it happen? It just will. "Like everything I've done the last few years ... exactly what it will be will unfold," she says. HOPE-HOWSE can be found on the Web at
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